Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
An art exhibit puts Main Street construction in context with the aspirations that built the car-free zone decades ago.
Downtown Buffalo's pedestrian mall earned its reputation as a design and planning blunder shortly after its debut in the 1980s. Locals still blame the renewal project for Main Street's shocking lack of busy storefronts and street life. In earshot of the jackhammers ripping it out today, a visual elegy of sorts is taking place.
While construction workers transform blocks of Main Street into a more holistic corridor that accommodates cars, bicycles, and the light rail system the pedestrian mall was built for, artist Max Collins is exploring the city's old and new visions for itself in an exhibit called "Deconstructing Main Street," just a block away at the Western New York Book Arts Center.
Collins's project started as a relatively simple photographic chronicle of the changes he was witnessing on daily walks by the construction site. After consulting with a planner at City Hall, he added a new layer: the unrealized ambitions for what turned into a forgettable urban renewal project.
Collins acquired renderings and city documents depicting what downtown Main Street was supposed to look like after plans in the 1970s called for a glass-enclosed street and an underground subway system that brought in shoppers from the fast-growing suburbs.
What ended up being built was a short light-rail system that traveled though downtown above-ground and never expanded beyond city limits. A massive shopping center in the suburbs, the Walden Galleria, debuted shortly after, further contributing to a diminished downtown.
Collins incorporated the old renderings into some of his own photographs (primarily of the Galleria and pedestrian mall), creating an abstract look for the actual and unrealized versions of Buffalo.
As the artist put the pieces together, he thought about how the version of Main Street that was constructed in the 1980s generated optimism at first. "This was built with excitement and energy," says Collins, "but the reality 30-years later expresses a desperate feeling and a lack of foresight."
With an almost surreal amount of construction taking place around downtown Buffalo today, the exhibit's timing is perfect. Change is exciting when viewed in a rendering or through a construction fence, but the hopes we have for each wave of civic ambition and renewal inevitably taper as years pass.
Deconstructing Main Street is on exhibit at the Western New York Book Arts Center (468 Washington St, Buffalo, New York) through July 5, 2014.